I am always amazed at the number of Spanish language schools in Spain that boast about their highly sophisticated language labs full of the latest technology! Surely, (I have always thought) it is far better to learn languages with real people? Surely, the elderly señora with time to talk on the plaza, or a friendly shepherd bringing the sheep down from the hills are far more efficient teachers for those learning the Spanish language than an audio tape in a sound-proofed room? So, when Francois Grosjean, Emeritus professor of psycholingusitics at Neuchâtel University drew my attention to the following experiment, it was refreshing to know that what seemed pure common sense … does still make sense! (Which is not always the case these days.)
Patricia Kuhl* and her colleagues at Washington University conducted an experiment on infants. They asked themselves whether any type of exposure to two languages (through human interaction, DVDs, audio input, etc.) is enough to encourage infants to develop the phonetic categories of each languages. They exposed 9 month old American infants to twelve sessions with Chinese native-speakers who read and played with them in Mandarin. With a second group of similar infants they gave them the same amount of Mandarin language exposure but only through DVDs and audio input, specifically avoiding any live human exposure.
Interpersonal skills play an essential role in the learning of a second language
The results were clear. Whereas the infants exposed to live human exposure acquired the Mandarin phonetic contrast, the second group (which learned through audio, and audio visual mediums) did not. Kuhl hence concluded that the presence of a live person interacting with an infant and engaging them in an interpersonal and social context were essential in motivating the infant to learn a second language. Naturally, I ask, as adults, do we really learn that differently
So, next time you find yourself learning the Spanish language in a language lab at a Spanish language school in Spain … get up and go for a walk, find a lively bar, join an aerobics class or knitting group or a local AA session, or simply chat up the lab assistant, but take those headphones off!
*Kuhl, P K., Tsao, F.-M. & Liu, H.-M. (2003). Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100 (15), 9096-9101